Getting the balance right

Adrian Hares tells us how he's balancing his soil

Adrian Hares is coordinating a field lab, looking at getting soil chemistry in balance

Adrian Hares has been farming organically at Round Hill Farm in Wiltshire since 2001. His farm comprises of 330 acres of beef cattle and combinable crops, including – wheat beans, barley oats, grown in a rotation of clover leys. 

Taking a break from feeding his cattle, Adrian shared his wealth of knowledge on soil and organic amendments.

Where does your interest in soil come from?

My interest in soils is both as a farmer on heavy clay loams, and from an advisor's point of view. In 2000 I diversified my businesses by starting to provide soils advice.

The variation and permutations in terms of depth, texture and drainage means that soil is a highly variable commodity – much more than many of us realise. If the physics alters, then to my mind it must have an impact on the biology. How we treat the soil effects the amount of moisture and air in it at any given time, hence different soils providing a variety of habitats for different bugs.

I thought that it would be very interesting to do a study to find more out about the biology of our soil.

Is this what you’re focusing on in your field lab?

What we did first off, as a group, was a survey – with a whole range of soil types. We then thought we are going to try and do an intervention – it was either phosphate or organic matter. Because the balance of the numbers involved we went for phosphate. Phosphate availability is a big issue for all farmers, especially for organic and those on heavy land like me, so I thought it would be interesting to see what we can do to make this valuable nutrient more available. 

Can you tell us how you’re planning to raise the level of phosphate in the soil?

We’re co-composting rock phosphate with manure, or mixing it with other variables – like green waste compost and aerobic digester solid.  Most research for any kind of agronomy is often carried out on medium soils for research institutes. It’s seldom that they go out to the really heavy, awkward soil as research institutes don’t like battling with these elements. So, we thought we’d go out into the real farm situation and try some things on difficult soils to see what the impact might be.

The trial will be running for three years, and although we’ve just finished the first year, I wouldn’t expect any changes yet as it takes time for changes to take effect.

What effects will you be monitoring?

The main variable that we’ll be looking at is phosphate availability but at the end of the trial we’ll see if there are any effects on biology, pH or anything else. Because it’s a trial and we’re fully aware not all the variables are controlled across four fields and three farms, we’re just doing comparisons on each farm and we’re going to see what other impacts there are.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience with organic amendments?

We have been quite traditional in approach, we’ve been bringing in aroebic digestate for the last two or three years and mixing it with farm yard manure on occasions.

In the past, we have also successfully used aroebic digestate as a liquid fertiliser on milling wheat to raise the grain protein.

Have you looked at ways to increase your soil organic matter?

Soil organic matter is a very interesting topic, full-stop. For organic farmers, I think it’s about just returning as much matter as you can. The organic movement and conventional sector need to look honestly what they’re both doing. That’s what’s interesting about Innovative Farmers: it’s an opportunity for both sectors to learn from each other.

Have you discussed ways to encourage soil biological activity?

For our recent survey, we made a surprising find on this; we found more soil biological activity in wetter soils. It was in wet soils with poor soil structure – which is counter-intuitive. As a general rule the best thing you can do to encourage biological activity is to avoid compaction, grow big crops and return manures and crop waste into your system.

Find out more about the Wilts Soil and Root Innovators > 

Field lab perspectives: Hear from other Innovative Farmers

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